Indigenous Ecuador Before the Inca | Galapagos Unbound

Much of Ecuador’s history before Incan conquest is misted by legend and eroded by time. Historical records indicate that Ecuador was populated by indigenous peoples as early as the 10th century BC. While many still speculate as to whether South America was initially populated by Asian nomads crossing a land bridge or Polynesian migrants, archeologists and anthropologists largely agree that Ecuador found itself populated by Brazilian migrants who were drawn westward toward the Pacific Ocean.

Although today much of Ecuador’s indigenous populations thrive in the Andean highlands and Oriente, it was the country’s coastline which drew and sustained the largest pre-Incan cultures. Indeed, the coastline civilizations of the Marita, Valdivia, Machalilla, La Tolita, and Bahía served as significant cultural foundations to present-day Ecuadorian identity. Many argue that the impact of Ecuadorian indigenous cultures surpasses the impact of the famed Inca who did not arrive in Ecuador until much later.


The Formation Period

True to this sentiment, several cultures became predominate in the era known as the Formation Period, which extended from 4000 to 300 BC. The people known as the Valdivia, who occupied the Santa Elena Peninsula over 5500 years ago, are recognized as creating Ecuador’s first stable settlement and non-nomadic culture. Not only were the Valdivia Ecuador’s first settled culture, but they were one of the oldest cultures found throughout the Americas. Archeologists have unearthed artifacts that testify to the people’s developing pottery skills; artifacts indicate their progression from rough pieces to remarkable works of art such as the characteristic Valdivia piece known as the “Venus of Valdivia” believed to have been a part of fertility rituals.

Unlike the sedentary farming culture of the Valdivia, the Chorrera is known for being the most pervasive of Ecuador’s pre-Columbian groups. The group occupied present-day Ecuador’s southern coast and spread to sections of the Manabí, Guayas, and Esmeraldas provinces. The Chorrera descended from the Machalilla culture, and both cultures share the notable practice of skull-deformation. While they formed their body for aesthetic and spiritual purposes, they also were known for their aesthetic pottery and ceramics. However, after the Pululahua Volcano erupted and covered the western Ecuadorian lowlands, the Chorrera culture was overcome.


Shamans, Societal Stratification, and Trade Routes

Around 600 BC, Ecuadorian societies began to become more culturally developed. Their social systems became more stratified with castes of shamans and a distinct merchant class that conducted long-distance trade with other South American cultural groups. Predominant among these developing groups are the Bahía, Guangala a la Tolita, and the Jama-Coaque—all of whom occupied the coast—and the Panzaleo group within the highlands. The Panzaleo has gained some notoriety as scholars many believe that it was this cultural group that first practiced the ritual of tzantza, in which the heads of vanquished enemies are shrunken and preserved. This ritual became an integral part of the belief system of many cultures and was practiced in South America until the mid-19th century.

Along with the development of societal roles and stratification, the indigenous cultures continued to become more aesthetically and technologically advanced. Trade routes were created between Ecuador and Peru, Brazil, and the Amazon. Eventually, these routes evolved and expanded until Ecuador was trading with the Mayans in Mexico. By 500 BC, the coast was sporting large cities where the populace was furthering their already-sophisticated metalworking and navigational systems. Although the indigenous tribes in present-day Ecuador faced internal conflict and fluctuations in power, the region was not war-torn or weak when they faced expansionist cultures. Three predominate tribes were formidable enough to challenge the Incan invasion from the south in 1460 AD: the semi-expansionist coastal Caras who conquered the highland Quitu and combined both cultures into a conglomerate known as the Shyris, the conquered Quitu, and the Cañari, in the south.